Azerbaijan: Council of Europe Should Speak Up

The Azerbaijani government released nine prisoners who had been convicted on politically motivated charges on June 22, 2012, four days before a Council of Europe body is scheduled to discuss a report on political prisoners in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. With many more people behind bars in Azerbaijan for political reasons, the Council of Europe should firmly insist that the Azerbaijani government release all of them and stop obstructing the organization’s work on this issue, Human Rights Watch said.

The nine men, who were serving up to three-year prison terms for their involvement in peaceful protests in Baku in April 2011, were released under a presidential pardon, having spent more than a year behind bars.

“Finally, nine political activists have been freed and can be with their families,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While these releases are a step in the right direction, the Azerbaijani government has a long way to go before the problem of political prisoners can be considered resolved and its record meets Council of Europe standards.”

On June 26, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly is to consider a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The report was prepared by Christoph Strässer, a member of the German parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly, who was appointed rapporteur on the issue in 2009.

Another Parliamentary Assembly body recently made public a memorandum on a wide range of human rights issues in Azerbaijan, though it failed to take a stand on key problems, Human Rights Watch said.

The Council of Europe has maintained a special focus on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan since the country was accepted as a member in 2001, and the Parliamentary Assembly’s mandate reflects the organization’s continued recognition of the issue as a serious problem. The Azerbaijani government, however, has persistently failed to cooperate with the rapporteur, refusing him access to the country and challenging the mandate as unjustly singling out Azerbaijan.

“Eleven years into Azerbaijan’s membership in the Council of Europe, its record on political prisoners remains abysmal and clearly warrants special attention by Europe’s foremost human rights body,” Gogia said.

In a June 22 letter, Human Rights Watch and NGO partners urged the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights to support unequivocally the rapporteur’s work on Azerbaijan and to firmly condemn the government’s failure to cooperate with the mandate.

While Strässer was compelled to prepare a report without being able to visit Azerbaijan, his findings are the result of extensive, in-depth consultations with Azerbaijani lawyers, as well as local and international human rights groups.

"Strässer’s report couldn’t be more timely, and the committee should give it the full attention it deserves,” Gogia said. “The Council of Europe should firmly maintain a focus on political prisoners as long as the authorities use the criminal justice system as a tool for political retaliation.”

Azerbaijan holds many people in detention on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said. In June alone, two journalists and a human rights activist were arrested on what appear to be bogus charges in retaliation of their human rights work.

Hilal Mammadov, editor-in-chief of  the newspaper Tolishi Sado (The Voice of the Talysh), which serves the Talysh ethnic minority community in southern Azerbaijan, was arrested on June 21 on alleged drug possession charges and sent to pre-trial custody for three months.

On June 12, Mehman Huseynov, a blogger and photographer at the Institute for Reporters’ Freedoms and Safety (IRFS), a leading nongovernmental group that monitors media rights, was arrested and charged with “hooliganism.” He was released the next day on his own recognizance until trial.

On June 8, police arrested Ilham Amiraslanov, an activist who advocated on behalf of victims of a 2010 flood in eastern Azerbaijan, on trumped-up weapons possession charges. A letter by Amiraslanov that has been made public said the police beat him in custody.

The new arrests bring to 12 the number of journalists, human rights defenders, and activists behind bars in Azerbaijan. They are among dozens of people whose cases are the subject of Strässer’s work.

The nine released on June 22 are: Arif Hajili, Rufat Hajibeyli, Ulvi Guliyev, Babek Hasanov, Tural Abbasli, Sahib Karimov, Ahad Mammadli, Zulfugar Eyvazli and Mahammad Majidli.

Resolving the issue of political prisoners is only one of the commitments undertaken by Azerbaijan when joining the Council of Europe. A range of other accession obligations it assumed have also not been met. In another letter sent on June 25 to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Monitoring Committee, in charge of assessing and reporting on Azerbaijan’s compliance with its accession commitments, Human Rights Watch urged the body to more fully reflect the government’s failure to observe its commitments.

The Monitoring Committee should take a firmer stand on the Azerbaijani government’s unlawful campaign of expropriations and forced evictions against property owners in the country’s capital, Baku, Human Rights Watch said.

In a February 2012 report, Human Rights Watch documented unlawful expropriations and forced evictions and illegal house demolitions in several Baku neighborhoods.

The Monitoring Committee’s assessment, made public in April, merely relayed information received from, on the one hand, the Azerbaijani authorities and, on the other hand, from nongovernmental sources, and stopped short of taking a position on the information received, Human Rights Watch said. The section on property issues left unchallenged, incomplete, and factually incorrect information that the government offered to support its position.

“The absence of any attempt at an assessment of the state of Azerbaijan’s compliance with its Council of Europe commitments and obligations is at odds with the core role of the Monitoring Committee,” Gogia said. “Taking a clear stance on abuses and conveying concrete reform expectations are key, both for the committee’s credibility and for the cause of human rights in Azerbaijan.”

Human Rights Watch